New director William Maher and writer Zac Stanford previously worked together in THE CHUMSCRUBBER and the similarity of vision is apparent in SLEEPWALKING: both films deal with the empty shells of hollow people aimlessly seeking connection in a world that has become foreign territory. It is a dark, cold, brooding film that somehow manages to maintain our attention with the hope that the gloomy tunnel though which the characters are passing will have a semblance of light at the end.
Joleen (Charlize Theron) is the inadequate, loving-but-inconstant mother of twelve-year-old Tara (AnnaSophia Robb) whose reckless an aimless life leads to constant moving and lack of roots. Evicted form her latest residence Joleen and Tara move in with Joleen's younger brother James (Nick Stahl) whose similarly aimless life is defined by a trashy apartment and a mindless construction work job. Tara is sullen, disappointed in her mother's erratic, irresponsible behavior, and when Joleen once again takes off 'on a new idea', Tara is left with James - trying to figure out an existence for survival. James loses his job due to absenteeism, takes up residence in the filthy basement of his nerdy co-worker Randall (Woody Harelson), while the town cop (Mathew St. Patrick) reluctantly places Tara in a foster home to await the return of Joleen. Tara prefers life with James to her 'imprisonment' and the two take off on a road trip, seeking some degree of happiness and love in a world gone berserk. When James runs out of money, he heads to his old home farm for refuge, an unlikely endpoint as his and Joleen's childhood was warped by their abusive farmer father (Dennis Hopper). The return to the farm, James hopes, will provide connection to Tara's past, but instead it results in a tragedy that ultimately moves Tara back to her 'home' and to Joleen, while James drives off into the unknown future, finally awakened from his sleepwalking through life.
The film is as bleak as the flat and snowy countryside (the film was shot in Canada's winter) and that countryside reflects the desperate loneliness of the characters. The small cast offers solid portrayals with the work of Nick Stahl being the standout performance. Theron, Robb, Harelson, Hopper, and Deborra-Lee Furness (in a small but poignant role) make the best of a shaky script. This is a mood piece and can become depressing if the viewer expects resolution of the sad and empty lives the characters lead. But there is a haunting quality to the look of the film that stays with the viewer, especially in the mystery in the eyes of the character James as he drives into an unknown but awakened future. Grady Harp, July 08